Labour’s inevitable war of attrition, short version.

My last post was quite long, so here’s an abbreviated version for the lazy and feckless among you. All polling suggests this is a large majority of the populace.

Most oppositions lose voters in the year before an election. Very, very few gain support, and the only one that has in recent history lost anyway. As Damon Runyon said the race isn’t always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that’s the way to bet.

That doesn’t mean Labour’s doomed, DOOMED, though. We’re in the ‘Events Zone’ because the unique factors in this election could easily be more significant in deciding the election than the historical trend.

So Labour’s strategy matters.

First, We shouldn’t worry about what we  can’t really influence (whether David Cameron can find a way to lure his Tory defectors back).

Second,  history suggests we’re rather unlikely to persuade new supporters to back us.

Third, this means holding on to the voters we’ve got already will really count.

Of the voters we’ve got now, about a third are unsure about our economic and other non-public services policies. About the same number are unsure about both the Party’s readiness for office and the Leadership.

They’re still voting Labour, but holding on to them will be essential to winning, and they’ll probably want some pretty concrete reasons that Labour will be better for them.

That points to a strategy of fighting for every one of our current voters, in a grinding war of attrition, while our opponents try to scare their rogue supporters into line and our doubters out of the voting booth.

Of course, we could try to be bold and make a major strategic advance into those voters who are sceptical about us. The problem with this is that being bold is likely to be expensive, which would put risk those who are wary of economic instability or taxes. On the other hand, a ‘boldness’ that appealed to the austere-minded would divide the party severely.

This is complicated by the fact that to win Labour needs to keep pretty much everyone who’s voting for us. When you’re on 35-39 per cent a year out, you can’t afford to alienate current supporters. The costs of boldness are much clearer than the potential rewards.

Precisely because Labour can’t afford to alienate existing supporters  it will find it harder to be riskily bold, and this dictates a strategy of defensiveness, even if everyone says it is the opposite (which they will, naturally).

Roy Jenkins compared Tony Blair in opposition to a  Butler carrying a ming vase across a room with a slippery floor. So it is for Ed Miliband, except this time the vase been greased in lard, the floor is covered in ice, his shoes are made of marbles and some sod is aiming a catapult through the window.

Ah, but could Labour win new supporters this year with a big radical offer?

Well, everything is possible. If we have a policy that is practical enough to persuade Tory, UKIP or non-voters to change their minds, won’t alienate any existing supporters, and won’t motivate opponents, breach our spending plans, divide the party or appear unrealistic, then I suggest we deploy it sooner, rather than later.

However, the cynic in me suggests such transformative policies are rather rarer than articles calling for transformative policies. After all, for all the articles about the Energy price freeze changing the terms of the debate, we’re still roughly where we were last summer.

In summary, Douglas Alexander will be forced to adopt a strategy of defensive anti-attrition to secure existing supporters, while pretending we’re doing no such thing, telling our supporters how brave we’re being. This will be exposed if things go wrong, when people will demand more advance, ignoring the risks inherent in their favoured direction.

Oh, and if the Tories don’t get their act together, we could win anyway. But it’s best not o rely on the failure of your opponents.


3 Responses to “Labour’s inevitable war of attrition, short version.”

  1. Bitter Blairite

    Hmmm, there is a strategy of boldness available – a consistent and convincing move to the centre. In 96/97 we adopted a defensive posture but that was because we were well ahead and even the defensive posture seemed very radical – pledges not to increase income tax seem old hat these days but that is because we did it so successfully then.

    I know, I know. Whistling in the wind.

    • hopisen

      It’s what I’d do too (and it’s what renzi/valls seem to be doing, though neither had to face an election, to be fair).

      Trouble is, you’d have to show it was popular before you drove it through, otherwise the noises off would be unbearable. I don’t see how it’s a credible option now, absent other changes, which won’t happen. If Ed tried to do it, he’d get ripped to shreds by toynbee and points left, but probably still wouldn’t convince soft Tories and sceptical types he meant it. Do it like that, and it’s a worst of both worlds scenario.


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